Thursday, May 03, 2007

John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

"We had a splendid meeting last night – everything a book club discussion is supposed to be," writes Jeanine. "It was a fairly small group, but the ideas were big and well-thought out, sometimes even touching on the profound. The title for discussion was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré, the story of Alec Leamas, a career spy who has grown disillusioned and stale in espionage, but must undergo one last assignment before he can 'come in from the cold.' "

Above: Checkpoint Charlie

Our display was minimalist to go with the starkness of the Cold War – black and white photos from the film (Richard Burton!), Checkpoint Charlie, Cold War icons, and the well-known shot of the soldier leaping over the barbed wire to the West. The main sustenance for the spies seemed to be cigarettes and drink, so we had an EMPTY bottle of whiskey (though an alcohol-laced discussion might be interesting….) and an EMPTY pack of unfiltered Camels (in keeping with the time period). A couple of passports, with one open to the DDR ( Deutsche Demokratische Republik – East Germany) stamps and a handful of East German coins. My birth date on the passport seemed to be the most popular item for perusal. Oops.

There is no way to discuss this book without giving away the ending, so I will move to a spoiler alert, and if you have any intention of ever reading the book, you may want to stop reading at that point. Don’t forget to get in your own 2¢ here at the Mainly Mysteries Blog.

Reactions to the book were mixed. Some people read and loved all of Le Carré’s books, some sort of liked the book, some disliked it intensely – but for many different reasons. The grimness of this spy story was both the appeal and the aversion for different people. Several disliked the overall darkness of the novel; it was well-written and believable enough, perhaps too believable, but they did not really wish to spend time there. One person said it was a “sad ending to a sad book” and there was already enough sadness in the world. Another person was incensed at what was done to Liz, the “innocent,” and that they were all evil for it, and she didn’t want to read about it. Others were fascinated with the insight into another time and place and profession, and intensity of circumstances.

Pieces of Le Carré’s background were brought into the discussion and added great depth to the understanding of the book. The people who have read more of his work, say there is the common theme of betrayal and abandonment running through all the books. He worked for the British Foreign Service for some years, so is considered to be quite familiar with the world about which he writes. One member noted that his father was a con man, and that even to the present, his dad has tried to use his son’s renown to further various financial schemes, and expected him to bail him out of subsequent disasters. Most members found both points significant and very relevant to his writing and main themes. Several members mentioned how impressed they were (and one not so impressed) with Le Carré’s ability to write this novel in only 5 weeks. Several readers looked on him as a man disillusioned with his work and government, and writing the novel was a way to purge himself of his despondency, and shed light on the darkness of espionage, a catharsis of sorts.

Naturally, in a book on this topic, the subject of good and evil, and right and wrong has to be covered. All the members agreed that only Liz was the real idealist (Communist), and even she was pretty fuzzy on what she actually believed. Fiedler (another Communist) seemed to be the only “nice” person in the espionage community, and it was he who said about his fellow spies “We’re all the same you know. That’s the joke.”) The intelligence services seem more intent on what’s expedient for “our side” than what is moral or right or even ideologically “pure.” And manipulation and subterfuge is the name of the game.

A member brought up the excellent question of just what is meant by “coming in from the cold?” What exactly is the cold? Most considered it the isolation of the spy’s life cut off from any real attachment to other people. The danger, fear and harshness of the lifestyle… the necessity for an emotionless life… giving up humanity… the distance from human warmth.

Now we come to last night’s discussion, and a great big SPOILER ALERT!!!!

Here is the big spoiler. The book is meaningless without the end, it forms the rest of the story. In fact, one member mentioned that setting up the intricate deception by British intelligence was the same as the writer’s craft, each started at the end and worked their way back, both are carefully planned backwards to achieve the final scenario. At the end of the book, Leamas and Liz are attempting to scale the Wall when they are betrayed, and Liz is shot. Leamas then makes the decision to move away from safety and back to Liz even knowing she is already dead, and to remain there in the light to force them to shoot him (which they clearly do not want to do). This brought about a splendid discussion of Leamas’ motivation – was it love, or more? Some did think it was because he loved her. Some thought it meant Leamas was finally making a choice, a non-idealist was making a stand. Or that Leamas wanted it very clear that he did not “use” Liz the way the intelligence services used people, then tossed them away. Or all of these. And one person brought it back to our discussion of “the cold,” that this was another way for Leamas to “come in from the cold.”

More pleasant asides –

Word of the meeting: revanchist. We’d all read it. On several occasions the Communists were referred to as revanchists. Did anyone know the meaning? No. Did anyone look it up? No. One of the librarians went off on a quest and returned with the definition:“ 1. The act of retaliating; revenge. 2. A usually political policy, as of a nation or an ethnic group, intended to regain lost territory or standing.” Oh.

Other favorite spy authors – Helen MacInnes, Robert Ludlum, Alistair Maclean.

One member so took to heart the Le Carré novels when he was younger and life had become quite complicated around him, that he tried to implement those skills and live as a spy in his daily life.

All in all it was a very complex and involving discussion. This synopsis only scratches the surface – I hope some people will be kind enough to elaborate more on the blog. Comparisons of the book with the movie would also be nice to read.

And through it all I didn’t have to use the bell even once.